Speaking with anxiety

Emma Parnell
4 min readOct 30, 2019


For the last two years my professional development objectives have contained something around public speaking. Historically I have failed to meet this objective. Last week I delivered three talks in a week – I’m counting that as my annual allowance!

Last Thursday I spoke at Create Leicester, a lovely community organised event arranged by a bunch of bloody kind people. Some of you reading this will have seen on Twitter that my Create Leicester talk was difficult. And that’s because on that particular day – my anxiety was running the show.

Speaking at Create Leicester. Photo credit Paul Moran.

I’d like to be clear here that I do not suffer from anxiety around public speaking. I just suffer from anxiety.

I get anxious about whether my brother is angry with me about a precariously organised family event. I get anxious about planning the perfect trip to South Africa. I get anxious about my partner not eating properly. I get anxious about not doing a good job at work. And that’s just the last 24 hours. More often than not my anxiety is tied to what others think of me or feel about me, or a lack of control over a situation. Public speaking fits neatly into both of those boxes.

My anxiety is heightened when I’m feeling a level of uncertainty or a lack of confidence in a particular area of my life. I’ve struggled with confidence my whole career and at the moment work is tough. I’ve started a new role, in a whole new world and that’s affected my confidence.

Create Leicester connected my anxiety with my low feelings of confidence around my work.

This experience taught me a few things that I thought it was worth sharing:

  1. Anxiety and fear of public speaking are different things – see above
  2. Only do talks when you feel ready, not because you think you should
  3. Being honest with audience and explaining how you feel is incredibly scary but people will respond well to your vulnerability
  4. Speaking slowly and carefully helps you to stay calm
  5. Sitting down is allowed even if you have wall sized screens and are expected to pace the stage like Steve Jobs! I asked for a chair, they said it was ok and I sat down and stayed still. Remember to sit by the laptop so you can see your speaker notes
  6. Having sections in my presentation helped. This was a happy accident but it allowed me to pace myself through my talk and I pre-warned the audience that I may not get through all the sections
  7. No one ever delivers a presentation where everything they say is gold dust. This is the particular aspect of public speaking that does give me direct anxiety – I worry the content won’t be interesting. Going in with the idea that all you have to do is say one thing that one person finds interesting has made everything feel a little less daunting to me
  8. Lapel mics help. You don’t have to worry about who can hear you and who can’t. You don’t have to worry about holding a hand held mic to your mouth
  9. Speak with a co-presenter if possible. Partnering with the amazing Hannah at SDFringe the day after Create Leicester was much more manageable and we agreed a ‘what to do if you can’t carry on strategy’ before hand

Giving this talk was difficult and it made me think carefully about when the right time for me to engage in public speaking is. I’m not ruling it out all together at all, it’s just taught me I need to be more conscious of the wider context around how I’m feeling.

This experience has also led me to reflect on what the organisers of events can do to support speakers who may be struggling. I’m in the midst of helping to organise an event myself and I can hand on heart say we’ve thought about a lot – but we maybe haven’t given this as much attention as it deserves. The Create Leicester crew were great and did what they thought was right at the time but what if, as event organisers, we were better informed around how to support people? There has been a lot of focus on codes of conduct to support attendees at events recently but what about speakers?

Lastly I wanted to reiterate the main thing that got me onto that stage. On the day I stated three reasons why I wanted to deliver the talk. I didn’t want to let the audience and organisers down, I wanted to prove to myself I could do it but most importantly I wanted to champion the need for design and digital talent in the third sector. The audience seemed, to me, to be more in the agency world and, as the only person on the lineup speaking about design in charities I really wanted to make sure I delivered that message and I’m glad I did. I hope one person thought about going to work for a charity, and if they did then it was worth it.



Emma Parnell

Freelance specialist in user research, service design and brand development. designforjoy.co.uk Previously @wearesnook, @nhsdigital, @wearewithyou.